The Big Island is new land and I’m reminded of its youth every time I drive along the Kona – Kohala coast.
The scenery is rugged, a primordial volcanic landscape that engulfs you on your drive
north from the village of Kailua Kona. The asphalt of Queen Kahahumanu highway is carved into the recent and ancient lava flows, mostly from Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes. Recent is relative, in geologic terms, that is. Hualalai last erupted in 1801 and this event didn’t create the land that Kailua Kona rests on, rather, it added another layer.
This route, driving north of the village of Kailua Kona on Queen Kahahumanu highway, the gateway to all the big resorts along the gold coast of Hawaii Island. Kukio, Hualalai, Waikoloa and Mauna Kea are each an oasis of green carved into the rugged landscape. It’s usually hot and dry, and it may remind you of an alien planet in a scifi movie. It’s also the route the Ironman Championship uses for the biking portion of the grueling one-day race. It’s hot, it’s windy, and it’s arduous.
As you continue, you have to remind yourself that you’re on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unless you’ve visited a volcanic island, you might think you wormholed to the Gobi desert. There’s a good explanation for the parched environment on this part of the Kona Coast, but it’s fodder for another blog post.
Today the key words are ‘royalty’ and ‘lava flows’, both of which Kona has seen its share of.
Along the highway there are places where you can pull off the pavement, park your car and then bravely hike over the cooled lava, heading toward the ocean. In one location you can pull off and drive across the lava flows to a beautiful tropical beach. It’s called Kekaha Kai. There are signs along the road (maybe just one in each direction), but you have to pay attention as it looks like another of many dirt roads off the main highway.
It’s slow going out to Kekaha for 2.5 miles. You travel over the lava flow and it’s anything but flat. The beach at Kekaha Kai is quintessential, white sand and palm-lined, and usually inhabited by few people. It’s a “must see” beach as there are few white-sand beaches along the Kona Coast and this crescent of incandescent grains of sand screams Polynesia.
There are two types of lava that occur in the islands and both can be present in the same location, one overlapping the other during different eruption events. They are commonly known as: AA and pahoehoe (pa-hoi-hoi). In the images you can see the two materials flowing over each other. The brown-colored layer is the AA lava and the black is pahoehoe. The differences between the two flows is dramatic. AA lava comes out of Pele’s belly impregnated with a large volume of air, making the cooled surface rugged and difficult to walk over (impossible without shoes). On the other hand, pahoehoe lava is generally smoother and can cool into the most unusual and beautiful patterns imaginable. Don’t be lulled into thinking barefoot hiking would be safe – IT’S NOT. The cooled lava has many sharp edges and most days the weather is hot – and pahoehoe is black.
One point of interest within walking distance from the highway is Kiholo, formerly the location of one of the many royal fish ponds in use along the coast. At least until Hualalai volcano erupted in 1801. The ponds were inundated with a fresh layer of lava during that event and what remains today is something akin to an isolated ocean preserve.
I’ve yet to find a marked or worn path, so I just climb on top of the flow and begin walking toward the ocean. The hike begins at the edge of a flow of pahoehoe, and if you walk, keeping a good pace and a watchful eye, the ocean is about a half hour hike.
Along the way you will likely encounter a small heard of goats that forages on the
surprising number of grasses and plants that have begun to grow in the cracks of the rocky surface.
Your eye will be struck with unusual and stark vistas, but keep your eye on the path. There are some incredible forms that this type of lava takes as it cools. In some instances pahoehoe can cool into patterns that look like rope or braids in a girl’s hair, or even like a piece of crumpled paper.
As you hike, you’ll begin to see a grove of palm trees near a small bay and nestled along the shore are several private residences. I’ve been out to the ponds at Kiholo several times and on only one occasion did I see another person, two women on paddle boards quietly skimming over the surface. And you will notice how intense the quiet is here. Kona doesn’t get bombarded with trade winds so there isn’t the sound of rushing wind or rustling leaves. The sound of cars on the highway bleeds thin and doesn’t make it out this far and only on rare occasions will this coast see significant surf.
Although I’ve been tempted, I’ve never approached the residences. People who live in these isolated locations usually have a good reason for their seclusion and disturbing them seems so unnecessary. There’s way better things to explore in this unusual land.
When you do arrive at the ponds you’re greeted not only with an invasive quiet, but a stillness that surrounds this surreal landscape. If you sit quietly near the ponds you will eventually hear one of the many turtles surface and take a deep breath. It’s a startling familiar sound, very much like when you take air into your lungs after a deep dive.
As you approach, the first thing you will notice is the intense turquoise color of the water in the pond. Bordered with the blackness of the pahoehoe, the pond water has an unreal, iridescent quality about it.
You probably won’t find the Kiholo ponds in any of the literature, highlighted as a “must see” on the Kona Coast. And asking locals in most cases will only cause them to shake their heads. As with many Hawaiian words, Kiholo refers to several different locations, on several islands. An easy description would be: “jus turn left outta da airport. Drive couple miles up da road braddah. Da road is on mauka side – no can miss…” Easy peasy.
As you drive along Queen Kahahumanu Highway out of Kailua Kona, take a chance and stop where there are other cars parked, or, like the case of Kiholo, an obvious place where you can park and walk toward the ocean. I’m sure you’ll be rewarded with sights you never thought your eyes would have ever seen.
The images here were all taken at Kiholo, a fish pond remnant, only a portion of what was once here prior to the 1801 eruption of Hualalai volcano. The Kona coast was once the home of Hawaiian royalty and these ponds were their fish market.